The Classical Album 2 (China Girl)
This album is "Classical" only in the
sense that it is acoustical and played
with an orchestra; Beethoven would
not recognize any of this music. On
the other hand, it is not traditional
Chinese music either since it is
performed entirely with Western
instruments and Western orchestras. It is something new and different, a blend of Western musical
traditions with Chinese influences. It is a brilliant, powerful and beautiful album; my favorite of all of
- Butterfly Lovers Concerto (26:39)
Composed by Ho Zhan Hao and Chen Kang
Performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Viktor Fedotov
- Violin Fantasy on Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ (11:24)
Composed by Vanessa-Mae
Performed with The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Viktor Fedotov
- Happy Valley: The 1997 Re-unification Overture (6:33)
Composed by Vanessa-Mae and Andy Hill
- The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House led by Vasko Vassilev and conducted by David Arch
- Chinese Ladies Choir led by Xiao Ping Li
- Drums and Percussion by Peter Lockett
Lyrics by Pamela Nicholson
The album includes voluminous inlay notes (14 pages of small text), including a Forward (which you can
read at Magic of Vanessa-Mae), very detailed and well-written descriptions of the three pieces; a
Biography, a dedication of the album to Vanessa-Mae’s departed grandfather; and the credits.
I’m not going to duplicate or reprint any of these notes, since mostly they are of interest only to people
who are listening to the CD. But I want to make some comments about the music, so that people who
don’t have this album can know what the music is and not just the titles.
Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto
Butterfly Lover's Concerto is the longest of the three works on this album. It was composed about a
century ago, based on a Chinese fairy tale and using Chinese musical traditions but for a Western
orchestra and violin.
The inlay notes explain this music so well that it's hard to add to them, but I'll try.
The work is called a "Concerto" because it is for a solo violinist and an orchestra and it is in three
movements, but it is much less structured than most concertos and lacks the usual fast - slow - fast
pattern of the three movements of a concerto. The transition between the three movements is not very
clear. In the later European release of CHINA GIRL, the work is divided into three tracks on the CD, but in
the Asian and American release it was only one long track. Otherwise the various versions of CHINA
GIRL are identical.
As the inlay notes say, the Butterfly Lovers Concerto is a program music based on an ancient legend
about Zhu Yingtai, daughter of a rich family, and Liang Shanbo, son of a poor family. In general, Zhu is
represented by the solo violin, while Liang is represented by a cello: the violin has a higher range than the
cello just as a female voice has a higher range than a male voice. The first movement opens very quietly:
first a lonely flute, then the rest of the woodwinds, then the full orchestra, before the solo violin starts;
and the cello later still. During the first movement, the two lovers meet and fall in love as they work and
play together; this music is tender and light-hearted. At about 7:50 on the first track, the tempo slows
down and becomes sad, as the two lovers find that they must say goodbye. The second movement
continues without pause, starting about 10:20 if you have the original CD where the whole concerto is one
track. It is a tragic and dramatic movement that starts suddenly with an angry theme of the orchestra brass
section, representing Zhu's father. About 13:50 the duet between the violin and cello, representing the
love of Zhu and Liang, comes back, but this time it is very tragic not happy as before. About 16:35 we
hear some percussion representing the hooves galloping horses, as Liang rushes away; and eventually
Liang dies. At about 19:30, we can sense Liang's torment as she throws herself into a tomb to commit
The third movement, about 19:50 in the single track version, is very spiritual, and is about the
reincarnation of the two lovers as butterflies. First we hear a sense of rebirth as the lovers are
reincarnated, immediately after Zhu's tragic suicide. Then, about 20:55, quiet again, and a fluttering as the
butterfly (the solo violin) opens its wings. About 24:00 to 24:45, the butterfly take flight. The music
concludes with a quiet, peaceful mood.
I lived in the Far East for 15 years, and there seems to be an unwritten law that Butterfly Lovers Concerto
must be performed at every classical music event. Various versions of it are heard everywhere, including
elevator-music versions played as department store background music and airlines PA systems to greet
passengers as they board. In the Far East this work is often performed with traditional Chinese
instruments rather than Western ones, and there are countless other variations on it as well.
Vanessa-Mae, being a violinist not a Chinese mandolin player, performs it with the original Western
instruments. She adds her own touches to it, especially in the second movement, but her version is not so
radically different from the normal way as THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS is.
My other CD of it is by Japanese violinist Takako Nishazaki, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted
by Eugene Ormandy. My CD, which I got in Asia, doesn't have the date of the recording but it must have
been quite a while ago, probably before Vanessa-Mae was born, because Eugene Ormandy retired from
the Philadelphia Orchestra many years ago. This is also a very good performance of it, much better than
many others that I've heard, and I've heard that is acknowledged by critics as one of the best recordings
of this work. Vanessa-Mae's is better, and captures the emotions of the story more. Her playing has a raw,
emotional edge when it is called for by the subject matter, whereas some performances that I have heard
are sweet and peaceful throughout the entire work even when the subject matter is a suicide.
Also, Eugene Ormandy's orchestration was a little different from Victor Fedotov's in the CHINA GIRL
version; for example a different use of percussion in the transition between the movements. Another
difference, which is perhaps the sound engineering rather than Vanessa-Mae's playing, is that the solo
violinist stands out much more than the orchestra.
For more information about this music, and a MIDI of it, check The Red Hot Vanessa-Mae site.
Violin Fantasy on Puccini’s ‘Turandot’
This is a very moving though rather melancholy piece. It is Vanessa-Mae’s own composition, which is
based on melodies from the opera. It is not really Chinese, but has some Chinese influences. The
orchestral parts of this piece are sparser than in the other two works and there is more solo violin. The
original opera was about a Chinese princess although written by an Italian composer. This topic about a
beautiful Chinese princess is something that Vanessa-Mae should be able to identify with.
This piece grows on you, and bears listening to many times, always finding new things in it. I think that
this piece will someday be an important part of violin reportaire, just as Sarasate's "Fantasy on Carmen" is
"Fantasy" in music does not mean dragons and elves, but rather is a specific musical term for a new
arrangement of an existing music for an instrumental soloist. For example, "Scottish Fantasy" was an
arrangement based on Scottish folk songs. The inlay notes explain that several of the famous violin
virtuosos of the past wrote virtuoso showpieces for themselves, just as Vanessa-Mae is now doing for
herself with this piece. The purpose and style are quite a lot like Sarasate's "Fantasy on Carmen", which
has been played by many virtuoso violinists, including Vanessa-Mae herself on both her debut album
VIOLIN and the LIVE AT BERLIN videotape. Both of these works involve condensing the essence of
three-hour operas down to about 11 minutes. In both cases, the voice parts of the operas are transcribed
Happy Valley – The 1997 Re-unification Overture
Vanessa-Mae composed this in collaboration with Andy Hill. This is the most innovative piece on this
album, if not in all of Vanessa-Mae’s work. It is totally unlike any music that I have ever heard before, and
does things that I never thought could be done on violin. It is not only with violin and orchestra like the
other two pieces and most of CLASSICAL ALBUM 1, but also with a Chinese choir and Chinese
percussion. This is a very exciting and interesting piece of music, which I think will be played and
remembered for many years. The music is very appropriate for Vanessa-Mae's high-energy style.
"Happy Valley" is well-loved by pop music fans as well as classical listeners, because of its triumphant,
exhuberant mood. Many Vanessa-Mae fans consider it her finest work. The same version is on the pop
However, I wish that it were longer. The piece has several themes and interludes, and the 6:33 length
doesn't seem long enough to develop all the themes. The two versions on the Single CD are even shorter,
The first performance was during the Hong Kong hand-over, in a large concert at the Happy Valley
Racetrack (hence the name). Normally it is used for horse-racing, and also Vanessa-Mae was born in the
Year of the Horse, so the song has a galloping-horse theme. Vanessa-Mae was the only foreign performer,
most of the others being local Hong Kong pop singers, and performed just before midnight. It should be
clarified that this concert was just one of many things going on in Hong Kong that night, though it was
the biggest in terms of number of people. Much of the concert was televised either locally or worldwide,
but just before midnight most of the world’s attention was on the official ceremony, which was in another
location (Wanchai), for VIPs only with very tight security. At this official ceremony, Prince Charles gave
the final speech to represent Britain for the hand-over, probably at about the same time as Vanessa-Mae’s
performance at the Happy Valley concert.
You can see the full lyrics of the song, in Chinese characters, transcription into pinyin, and in English
translation, at the website Rhapsody.
The title on the front cover is bilingual in Chinese and English, as is Vanessa-Mae’s name on the cover
and the track list. There is also a dedication to Vanessa-Mae’s grandfather Tan Lip Kee, which is in
English on the front and Chinese on the back. The CD itself and the background of everything has the
album title in Chinese ("Zhong Kuo Shao Nu", a translation of "China Girl"). (Also the wallpaper of this
site.) But the bulk of the liner notes are in English. It is quite an unusual approach.
Also, the packaging is unusual for a Vanessa-Mae record because there is only one photo of her. That
one photo is a black-and-white close-up of her face and shoulders, in the style of 1930’s Shanghai. (This
is the photo used for this web site.) The image is very different than previously, or from the new image for
STORM's cover only two months later. The single photo is exceptionally modest considering that
Vanessa-Mae had only recently been selected by People Magazine as one of the "50 Most Beautiful
People in the World" and considering the packaging of her previous albums. The one photo, though
beautiful, shows little of what she really looks like. The People magazine award was never mentioned in
her publicity. Obviously, Vanessa-Mae was been stung by all the criticism of her sexy image and was tired
of people talking about her legs rather than considering her as a serious artist.
Concept of the album
CHINA GIRL seems to be a project that Vanessa-Mae did for her own personal and artistic reasons rather
than commercial reasons. It is dedicated to her grandfather. Also it is about her roots as a half-Chinese
British. Most importantly, it seems to be intended as Vanessa-Mae’s bid to be accepted as a serious
classical artist. It is a straight, serious acoustical album, with no electronics anywhere and only one very
modest photo. It has her first works as a composer of classical music, perhaps starting to make all the
comparisons to Mozart and Mendelssohn a little closer to reality. These are very original and creative
works, not standard classical pieces. Also, according to the liner notes, the violin techniques are very
special and difficult, although I'm not qualified to judge that.
Uniqueness of this album
"CHINA GIRL" is not a normal classical album. It is very unusual for several reasons:
- It is a blend of Western and traditional Chinese influences with new musical ideas (not really "Chinese
music" as it is sometimes billed).
- It was the 7th album from an 18-year old artist
- Two of the three pieces are original compositions, recorded here for the first time, and that is very
unusual for a classical album especially from somebody this young. Vanessa-Mae is a classical composer
who is neither Dead nor White nor Male.
- It uses Chinese both on the cover art and in the lyrics, and was being marketed heavily in the Far East
(TV commercials, storefront posters, etc.); perhaps the first time that a Western music recording was made
with the Asian market so much in mind.
Differences from CLASSICAL ALBUM 1
Putting "CLASSICAL ALBUM 2" into the title of this album implies that it is closely related to
CLASSICAL ALBUM 1. (Also, it continues to ignore the first three classical albums that Vanessa-Mae
recorded by the age of 14.) Actually, the two albums are very different, and not just because the first one
was "German music". See my notes in the CLASSSICAL ALBUM 1 section. CA1 is more accessible and a
better introduction to classical music for people who have never listened to it before, but CA2 is far more
innovative and far more interesting at least for me. Because the two are so different, I refer to CHINA
GIRL: CLASSICAL ALBUM 2 as "CHINA GIRL" not "CA2".
Meaning of the Title
"China Girl" is a odd title for a half-Chinese British 18-year old to apply to herself. I admit that I still don’t
quite understand why they picked the title "China Girl", even after reading the Forward several times.
Also, "China Girl" is the title of an old David Bowie song, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do
with this album. But that can’t be just an accident, because Vanessa-Mae’s manager Mel Bush used to
manage David Bowie and surely knows of that song.
The cover also has a new Chinese name for Vanessa-Mae, which is "V Mae". "Mae" (or "May" or "Mei")
is a very common Chinese girl's name meaning "beautiful", and that is the Chinese character. But
"Vanessa" cannot be translated and is difficult for non-bilingual Chinese to pronounce, so it is shorted to
just the letter "V". (It's a good thing that "Nicholson" is gone!) Probably this was done to help sales in
Mainland China. The Chinese name that had appeared in the liner notes of THE VIOLIN PLAYER is
CHINA GIRL’s release and sales
The style of launching this album is interesting. First, it was preceded by a Singles version of "Happy
Valley", released only in Asia. (See notes for the Happy Valley single version.) The CHINA GIRL album
was launched about August 20 in Hong Kong and other Asian countries with a huge marketing campaign
including TV commercials, storefront posters, etc.. Publicity was also helped by Vanessa-Mae’s TV
commercial for a Swiss watch as well as TV commercials for CHINA GIRL itself, airing of LIVE AT
ALBERT HALL on primetime TV, and generally being very famous in Hong Kong in the time after the
hand-over. Oddly, when I went to buy CHINA GIRL, the department store’s PA system was playing other
Vanessa-Mae music in the background.
It was released on September 9 in the USA –in the same version, still with Chinese characters on the
cover. I saw it in many record shops in the USA but didn’t see any advertising for it. After that, it got to
#7 on the Billboard Classical Charts for two weeks, then went back off the charts. In November,
Vanessa-Mae did a publicity tour to the USA and made TV appearances, then it got back to #3 on this
chart. It was on the classical music charts for a few weeks after that.
CHINA GIRL was finally released in Britain on Chinese New Year (late January) 1998. Her eighth album
STORM was released just the opposite way: only in Europe but not yet in the USA. STORM was released
in Asia not long after its release in Europe but with a different cover.
My theory is that CHINA GIRL was primarily a personal and artistic project for Vanessa-Mae and was
originally not intended to have blockbuster sales except in the Far East. Maybe its release in the US and
Europe was delayed to make it closer to STORM, so that a commercial failure of CHINA GIRL would have
less effect and so that STORM’s expected success will help CHINA GIRL. STORM is the one that the
fans have been waiting for and which was intended to be a big seller. STORM seems to be packaged as an
opposite of CHINA GIRL: a dark album cover not white, another face-and-shoulders photo but with a
completely opposite facial expression and image, a very modern image as opposed to historical.